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Today I went to my old dentist and they told me I owe them $350 from from several visits three years ago (I switched to a different dentist for the past 3 years before switching back today).

When I asked them why they didn't send me a bill, and they answered that they forgot. I was shocked and irritated, because I don't have my receipts from 3 years ago anymore.

If they had told me that I owe them $10,000 from 3 years ago, I wouldn't have anything to fight back.

Can a doctor's office do that? Is there a statue of limitation (I'm just guessing) that forces them to notify me in a certain time frame?

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Statute of limitation is defined in the local law. Check your local jurisdiction code on that, how would we know? –  littleadv Jan 2 '13 at 20:53
    
Have you considered negotiating? If they forgot to send you a bill, they should forgo penalties. My opinion is that you ethically owe the money for services rendered, but they ethically shouldn't charge you late fees as they forgot to try and collect. –  MrChrister Jan 2 '13 at 21:23
    
Also, your bank will have records from that long ago. It might cost you to get back statements mailed to you, but that cost would be less than double paying this bill. –  MrChrister Jan 2 '13 at 21:32
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3 Answers

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They have forever to collect a balance from you. Furthermore they can add whatever penalties and fees they wish to increase that balance. Worst of all, they don't have to remind you or send you bills or any other notification. You owed it when you left the office. (There very well could be local laws that require notifications, but that isn't really the issue here.)

That dentist has every right to deny you service until you settle the account. Forever.

The question you want to know is how long can they sue you for the debt.

The statute of limitations on collecting that debt via court: http://www.bankrate.com/finance/savings/when-does-your-debt-expire.aspx

Which covers the rules on HOW LONG they have to collect the debt. Owing the money is one thing, but the rules and tools that you creditor has to collect the debt are another. You are probably worried about them suing you. But if you don't pay the debt (or settle in some way), that dentist can refuse to provide services to you, even if they right off the debt.

Ways you can be punished by your dentist for not paying the bill are:

Credit Reporting:

Depending on your jurisdiction and/or type of debt, they typically only report it on your credit (if they are reporting at all) for 7 years. Even if you pay and settle the account, it will still be reported on your credit report for 7 years. The difference is how it is reported. They can report that "user133466 is a super reliable person who always pays debts on time". They can say "user133466 is a flake who pays, but takes a while to pay". Or they can say "user133466 is a bad person to provide services before collecting money, because user133466 don't pay bills".

Other people considering lending you money are going to read these opinions and decide accordingly if they want to deal with you or not.

And they can say that for 7 years. The idea of credit reporting is that you settle up as soon as possible and get your credit report to reflect the truth.

Getting A Judgement Against You To Collect:

One popular way to collect a debt to is to sue you for it. There, each state has a different time period on how long a creditor has to sue you for a debt.

http://www.bankrate.com/finance/credit-cards/state-statutes-of-limitations-for-old-debts-1.aspx

If you pay part of the debt, that will often reset the clock on the statute of limitations, so be sure any partial or negotiated settlements state very clearly, in writing, that payment is considered payment in full on the debt. Then you keep that record forever.

They Can Hassle You For The Money:

There are other interesting points in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. See Debt collectors calling? Know your rights. They can only contact you in certain ways, they must respond to you in certain ways, and they have limits on what they can say, who they can say it to, and when they can say it. There are protections from mean or vicious bill collectors, but that doesn't sound like who you are dealing with. I don't know that the FDCPA is a tool you need to use in this case.

Bottom line - You Should Pay:

You should negotiate your debt and try your best to settle up. From your post, both parties dropped the ball, and both parties should give a little. You should pay no or minor late fees, and the doctor should report your credit positively when you do so. If you both made honest mistakes, they both parties should acknowledge that and be fair, and not defensive.

This is not legal advice. But you owe the debt, so you should settle up. I don't think it is fair for you to not pay because they didn't mail you a paper. However I also do not think it is fair for the doctor to run up fees and not remind you of the bill.

Finally, you didn't bring up insurance or many other details. Those details can change the answer.

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So maybe you should clarify the difference between a debt and a collectible debt. Debt that cannot be collected is worthless to the creditor and should be written off. Credit report trashing is more of a punishment/pressure/warning to others rather than a collection effort. –  littleadv Jan 2 '13 at 21:58
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@littleadv - okay, bold headings and more proof reading. Thanks for keeping me and my sloppy writing on point. I clearly haven't practiced writing anywhere near enough =) (edit: I can't even type a comment without a mistake!) –  MrChrister Jan 2 '13 at 22:08
    
+1 - Your answer looking good, but, in my opinion, the dentist or doctor office is somehow off the hook. My insurance won't process a bill beyond a certain time, usually April of the year following service. So an office mistake can turn into serious money out of my pocket. Insurance intervention will cut bills by as much as 80%, in my experience. –  JoeTaxpayer Jan 2 '13 at 22:18
    
Well, once they said "we forgot" I was irritated too. So my answer is reflective of that. I didn't consider insure until the end. (I personally decline dental insurance since the premiums are almost as much as the two visits per year.) –  MrChrister Jan 2 '13 at 22:22
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If they had told me that I owe them $10,000 from 3 years ago, I wouldn't have anything to fight back.

Why? First thing you have to do is ask for a proof. Have you received treatment? Have you signed the bill when you were done? This should include all the information about what you got and how much you agreed to pay. Do they have that to show to you, with your signature on it? If they don't - you owe nothing. If they do - you can match your bank/credit card/insurance records (those are kept for 7 years at least) and see what has been paid already.

Can a doctor's office do that?

They can do whatever they want. The right question is whether a doctor's office is allowed to do that. Check your local laws, States regulate the medical profession.

Is there a statue of limitation (I'm just guessing) that forces them to notify me in a certain time frame?

Statute of limitations limits their ability to sue you successfully. They can always sue you, but if the statute of limitations has passed, the court will throw the suite away (provided you bring this defense up on time of course). Without a judgement they cannot force you to pay them, they can only ask. Nicely, as the law quoted by MrChrister mandates.

They can trash your credit report and send the bill to collections though, but if the statute of limitations has passed I doubt they'd do that. Especially if its their fault.

I'm not a lawyer, and you should consult with a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction for definitive answers and legal advice.

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+1 great point. They can sue anytime, but the poster doesn't show up to defend themselves, the dentist could get a default judgement even outside the statute in such a case. Bad times. –  MrChrister Jan 2 '13 at 22:11
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Seems like the doctor's office is not very organized. Ask for a line itemized bill. You want the date and the specific service(s) performed on those dates. If the bill seems fair and correct, try to negotiate cash discount payment. Ask how much they would settle for if you paid cash. If it is higher than you were thinking, say you were not expecting this sudden bill and if they would accept $xxx. If they say yes, great. If not, try to compromise, pay the suggested offer, or not pay and hope they don't send it to collections.

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